Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What I've Been Reading

The Return of History, and the End of Dreams, by Robert Kagan.

A slim little book which shows that the "end of history" diagnosed by Francis Fukuyama was an illusion (See also the 1999 book by Martin Van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State, the concluding chapter of which was simply titled "Beyond the State", that tells it all about the dreams of the period).

Kagan argues that great powers are once again competing for honor and influence. Nation-states remain as strong as ever as do the old, explosive forces of ambitious nationalism. The world remains "unipolar", but international competition among the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India and Iran raises new threats of regional conflicts.

Moreover, a new contest between western liberalism and the great eastern autocracies of Russia and China, as well as the violent struggle of radical islamists, has reinjected ideology into geopolitics.

This is a mixed bag. Agreed, the State is not obsolete. On the contrary, as I showed in The Second XXth Century, it is best characterized as one of a worldwide triumph of the State, albeit smaller than before, on average. These smaller States are also severely finance constrained due to the international mobility of capital and labor. States are more numerous in the world, and thus a "success", but financially weaker, and less agressive territorially. This means that competition between them is increased, in an industrial organization perspective, and is not one of "explosive forces of ambitious nationalisms". These latter forces were due not to ideology or competition but to an increase of optimal State size, leading to the clash of expanding imperialisms, as Lenin clearly perceived (but he failed to understand the real reasons, not capitalism in itself as he thought but the result of new technologies decreasing the costs of management) .

The present "atomistic competition" of nations is unlikely to lead to frequent inter-state wars, as data clearly show. Some of the competitors mentioned by Kagan are notoriously confronted to many difficulties that distract them from agressive nationalism: Europe (which is not really a country, nor a State) is trapped in the enlargment process and its governance is weak. Japan is a rapidly aging society and has been a low growth area for more than a decade. And Russia new found oil wealth is vulnerable to another downward trend of its price.

Agreed, eastern autocracies do not trust democracies that would like to force them to adopt more open political systems, but is this a real justification for going to war? Downsizing States are more likely to absorb themselves in their internal problems with regional dissidence or even secession, and what could autocracies expect to gain from wars with democracies at a time when the dominant trend is towards smaller size?

Our time is more like the westphalian era of competitive States in the post-napoleonic Europe - an age of peace between States and self determination of nations -, than the imperialistic age of the late XIXth and early XXth centuries. And the terrorist phenomenon, although in part subsidized and "outsourced" by some rogue States, is evidence of the rise of non-state violence rather than an instrument of a return to ideological State conflicts.

Yes the end of the XXth century generated dreams, but a return to realpolitick does not mean a return to the imperialistic clashes of "first XXth century".

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